Home recording to home studios: the 1970s and 1980s

Photograph of a reel to reel tape recorder

© istockphoto.com/Jamesbenet

The 1970s and 1980s saw the development of sound recording technologies specifically targeted at the hobbyist musician. In 1972 the Japanese corporation TEAC launched TEAC 3340, a reel-to-reel machine which replicated the multitracking capabilities of the professional studio. The 3340 allowed for the recording of four tracks at different times, the levels of which could be adjusted at playback to produce a final mix. This early TEAC model provided the template for the multitude of four-track portable studios which were to follow.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s these home studios became even more accessible to a wide number of people through their incorporation of inexpensive cassette tape technology in models such as Tascam's series of 'Portastudios'. These types of recording units generally consisted of an integrated four-track mixer and a cassette cartridge recorder and could be easily integrated into the domestic space of amateur and semi-professional musicians' homes. There they often provided the core of home-studio setups. Jones (1992: 139) points out that by 1977 home recording had become a recognised industry and by the 1980s these cassette units (manufactured by companies such as Fostex and Yamaha as well as TEAC) had reduced in price and increased in popularity.

Because home recording machines used a small area of tape there was generally a much lower sound quality than machines used in the recording industry. It was therefore extremely difficult to use four-track machines to obtain a high enough sound quality for a release. However, this was not the primary purpose of such machines. This equipment was primarily aimed at the hobbyist market but was also commonly used by professional and semi-professional musicians as a kind of musical note pad for laying down ideas for songs. Such recordings have traditionally been used as demos, to give managers and recording companies a rough idea of how recorded material might eventually sound when recorded in a commercial studio. They have also served as rough guides to arrangement for collaborative musicians prior to rehearsal, as well as being used for recreation.

The introduction of these technologies made multitrack recording significantly more accessible in terms of both the money and the space needed. Many aspiring and part-time musicians now learned techniques that had previously been the preserve of professional recording engineers and of experienced musicians, who had picked up techniques in the professional environment. Paul Théberge argues that these factors led to a fundamental change in the way in which many musicians saw themselves. The rise of the home recording market and home studios led to a "mobilisation of domestic space as production environment", and through this to the rise of what he calls the "hyphenated musician" (singer-songwriter-producer-engineer). The result was "new definitions of what it means to be a musician", signalling perhaps the start of a move away from the collective process of writing, arranging and recording that had been common within rock music (Théberge, 1997:221).